Mayor Bowser updates DCPS families on reopening plans

Madison Dias

On October 5, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee hosted a COVID-19 situational update regarding the reopening of DC Public Schools. Elementary schools, with grades Pre-K through fifth, are expected to begin returning on or after November 9 with sixth through twelfth grade students expected to return February 1. Elementary schools are providing three options for learning in Term two.

Across all DCPS elementary schools, one classroom per grade will have a teacher leading in-person instruction for a small class of fewer than 12 students. The daily schedule will follow that of a typical school day, with similar daily activities taking place as they were pre-Covid. Additional teacher led classrooms will open specifically for students receiving special education services prioritizing seats in self-contained classes. Elementary schools will also have students Canvas Academics and Real Engagement (CARE) classrooms for every grade. In CARE classrooms, students will have supervised care for the school day from a caring adult that is not their teacher. Students will have the benefit of being in-person with their peers but will participate in class virtually.

Within these small groups, if a student or teacher were to test positive for COVID-19, “the individuals within that cohort will be notified and required to quarantine for the 14 days.” DCPS would then, “follow [their] cleaning protocols and then we will also notify the entire school community of the positive case.”

According to Mayor Muriel Bowser, “DCPS will be able to offer up 21,000 seats in the Pre-K through 5 grade spectrum,” come term two. Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee acknowledges that, “at least 20-25% possibly more of our families want to continue to learn at home and [virtual learning] is working for them.” Out of the 21,000 seats for students, 7,000 would be in a small group with a teacher for in-person instruction. The other 14,000 would be in an area with a supervisor, taking the same kind of online classes and the rest of the elementary students would remain at home.

With this being said, secondary school spaces will not be utilized at the time with preparation for elementary buildings being the priority right now. Ferebee believes that in order to maximize the capacity of the 21,000 seats, “[DCPS] will need approximately 3,400 staff members between in-person learning classrooms and CARE classrooms.”

Seat assignments are based on a lottery process, “Schools will reach out to families directly to make offers for the in-person learning classroom seats or the CARE classroom seats and the self-contained special education classroom seats.” Families may or may not receive an offer for an in-person learning classroom seat by October 23. However, if not offered an in-person seat, one may be offered a CARE classroom seat by October 30. Those who take a seat are, “expect[ed] to maintain that seat throughout Term two,” Ferebee said. 

The prioritization of returning students is as follows: students experiencing homelessness, receiving Special Education services, English Language Learners, students designated as At-Risk, and all other enrolled Pre-K through fifth grade students.

In order to prepare buildings for return of students, DCPS has released a school building readiness checklist which includes: personal protection equipment (PPE) and hygiene supplies, cleaning supplies and procedures, socially-distant space arrangement, signage, water access, HVAC enhancements, and plumbing systems. These standards align with public health guidance issued by DC Health, The Office of the State and Superintendent of Education (OSSE), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when students and teachers are back in the building. School leadership, operational staff, and relevant central office teams will conduct building walkthroughs with parent and community leaders in order to determine if schools are ready to reopen safely. 

School principals were also given a “COVID-19 Operations Handbook Guide,” with 69 pages describing cleaning guidance and other necessary information regarding running a building under COVID-19. As of now policies include meals being served within classrooms, breaks and recess being administered, social distancing being closely enforced, enhanced cleaning, health screenings, and new masks being supplied everyday.

In regards to restrictions and policies being regulated within the school buildings, Ferebee mentions that with “studying other school districts or other schools that are having in-person experiences,” he is able to understand the importance of “training the staff on the protocols for mask wearing and any other PPE and to start early on with reminders to students and also throughout the day ensure that there are again there are reminders for students about theirs masks.” He claims that, “we [DCPS], haven’t seen nationally a need to discipline students,” however the expectation remains that students will wear face coverings for their entirety of staying within the building. 

As of right now there is no published plan for grades six through 12 to return. “Who we are targeting for term two is driven by what we’ve learned and what we know about what’s happening with learning at home right now and also to mitigate disruption of scheduling in the academic experience for students,” said Ferebee. Ferebee claims that the “youngest learners” are a lot less independent, causing virtual learning to be more challenging. Additionally, he notes that secondary schools are primarily based on semester classes and therefore a transition into in-person learning would be more “disruptive and not productive” due to the distribution of teachers and classes being at a much larger scale with students having multiple teachers. Ferebee does acknowledge that there are currently secondary students, “being served in student support centers and we could see expansion of that… [provision of] in-person experience [for] the various career pathways they are pursuing.” 

In regards to grades six through 12 returning, “it could look a little bit different,” due to the class scheduling being very different from the elementary schools, Ferebee said. Information regarding scheduling for grade six through 12 will be, “released weeks before February 1, similar to the process with elementary returning,” he included. In regards to the total universe for grade six through 12 and the percent of students that may be accommodated, Ferebee anticipates that, “it will be really similar to our elementary buildings. Based on the capacity, we could house up to about 75% [of students] potentially but that would depend on scheduling because the number of students that you have in a cohort, how you utilize your space could dictate the number of students that you can serve.”

Ferebee claims that the Central Office is in collaboration with the Washington Teachers Union (WTU), and will continue to work with them on the process of reopening. “What I will tell you is that we are committed to be responsive to the needs of our students and we will do it with great safety and we will provide the resources to make that happen,” said Ferebee.